Please sir, I want some more

May 27, 2023 – Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Poor Oliver Twist! Who can forget the late and great John Howard Davies in the 1948 film as an angelic Oliver holding out his plate in that ghastly orphanage. Thankfully, the BBC has not forced us in recent times to watch a re-make in which Oliver is a young gangsta with a joint hanging out of his mouth saying, ‘Give us nosh, man!’

Oliver was at least fortunate that he never had to attend the average Crown Court on my Circuit where the question would have been superfluous, as no food or drink would have been available in the first place, not even for ready money.

If this is read by an increasingly distracted Home Office or the Ministry of Justice, please spare us the dystopian press release saying: ‘We are committed to providing first class court facilities throughout England and Wales,’ followed by some dodgy statistics. We have recently seen Serco’s statement that it delivers to court on time over 99% of its charges. Amazingly, this seemingly went unchallenged, meaning that everyone’s experience in chambers, every professional colleague, every judge you ever speak to and a good proportion of all one’s own cases must fall into this errant 1% of ‘one-offs’. The press have a lot on their plates too, what with Phil and Holly parting company, but some enterprising journalist, a little jaded with the doings of morning television shows, might have asked Serco what contractually being ‘on time’ means. I have a suspicion it is not defined as being there half an hour before the court sits.

One of our door tenants is a former MP. I am not quite sure why he left. It might have been that little problem of a thin majority or maybe he just got fed up with the place. I could easily see how. He is, however, perceptive about how governments work. As he said to me recently: ‘The problem with policy is you have to do something and doing something costs money. We don’t have any. Defence, NHS, and projects from another time still waiting to be fulfilled wipe out all available cash before smaller departments can even ask for more. With queues to the back of beyond in our hospitals and potholes that make the fairground dodgems feel like a Rolls Royce, they are not going to start mending broken-down courts until they are literally falling down.’

I looked suitably depressed. ‘Can’t even get a coffee now at some courts,’ I said, but it lacked my usual conviction. ‘You won’t get all that back,’ he commented, ‘but don’t think they have forgotten us. No, even as we speak, they are planning to force defendants to eyeball victims or their families in court as sentences are passed. It catches headlines. It’s free and it plays to a certain streak in us all. It does assume that the defendant will be actually there in the building at the relevant moment, but they think that’s just a little detail.’

It brought to mind an idea I first had when Paddy Corkhill and I were still young enough to bend down and tie our shoelaces without making funny noises suggesting oxygen is in short supply. Cash machines had started to pop up everywhere and it struck me that given the general rigidity of sentencing (far more pronounced now with the sentencing tramlines) you could give a person charged a card to put in a hole-in-the-wall. You push the guilty button and answer a few questions such as ‘I am/am not sorry’ and, having accessed your criminal record, it will tell you your fine, which you could pay there and then, or your community penalty with a number to call or, if more serious, your prison term and the establishment to which you must book in during the next 48 hours. Appeals would be heard, for a few pounds, by even larger machines with more options located in court centres and superior department stores. Simple, inexpensive and much the same result as the real thing.

I remember Paddy looked genuinely shocked. ‘Keep your voice down William. They won’t think you’re joking. They’ll think its brilliant. They’ll do it, and give you a knighthood.’ Perhaps he was right. It would be even more attractive to them now. I won’t write to my own Honourable Member about it. He used to be at the Bar too. I will content myself instead with signing Hettie Briar-Pitt’s online petition to ban the Grand National. Cost me £20 in the Chambers’ sweepstake and I did not win a penny. No ‘more’ for me either.